CHEYENNE – Aside from its opening drive, Cheyenne East couldn’t get anything going offensively during the first half Friday night.
Neither could Casper Natrona County.
The Thunderbirds eventually found their footing and held tight on defense during a 35-14 victory in the opening round of the Class 4A playoffs at Okie Blanchard Stadium.
“That first drive was ugly,” East coach Chad Goff said. “But our kids did a good job of sticking with the game plan, rethinking what they were doing wrong and adjusting.”
East (7-3) plays at top-seeded Thunder Basin (10-0) in the semifinals.
The Mustangs (6-4) marched 80 yards on their opening drive, and took a 7-0 lead when senior Dante Wallace got around the left side and scored from 8 yards out.
The T-Birds responded three plays later. Junior quarterback Graedyn Buell rolled to his right and found senior Ox Schroeder wide open down the seam for a 60-yard touchdown.
East trailed 7-6 at halftime after Schroeder missed the extra-point attempt.
The T-Birds started four of their five first-half drives in Natrona territory, but couldn’t pull ahead as both teams struggled to move the during the second quarter.
It was an entirely different story in the third.
East pulled ahead on its first drive of the second half when Buell got a Natrona cornerback to bite on a pump fake to free senior Cole Micheli up for a 32-yard touchdown down the right sideline. Buell fought his way in for the two-point conversion and a 14-7 lead.
On their next drive, the T-Birds faced third-and-21 from their own 22 when Buell connected with senior Chance Aumiller on a post route. Aumiller stumbled as he tried to cut the ball across the field near the first down marker. He managed to stay on his feet, get the ball outside and beat the Mustangs’ defense down the right sideline for a 78-yard score and a 21-7 lead.
“I made a jump cut on one defender and felt myself starting to fall,” Aumiller said. “I thought I had the first down, but I didn’t want to go down. I found a way to stay on my feet and keep going.”
“I couldn’t have taken it from one side of the field to the other like that without guys blocking the whole way,” Aumiller said.
East forced the second of three turnovers on Natrona’s next drive. Senior defensive tackle Zac Higgins hit Mustangs’ quarterback Harrison Taubert just as he threw, and T-Birds junior linebacker Shaye Ellis grabbed the short throw for an interception.
Nathan Rayl and Haden Lamm also grabbed interceptions for East.
“I was trying to get to my fit and saw the ball coming at me, I almost dropped it because I was so happy to see a ball like that coming my way,” Ellis said.
Natrona gained 301 yards offensively, but East was satisfied with the only number that mattered.
“We wanted to keep them under 21 points, and we did that,” said Higgins, who finished with five tackles and 1½ sacks.
Buell finished with 285 passing yards and four touchdowns. That included 212 yards and three scores during the third quarter.
Aumiller finished with 126 yards on three catches. Rayl also caught a 9-yard touchdown pass during the third quarter.
East was without junior right guard Josiah Aragon and senior right tackle Aiden Montoya because of injury. Its offense got going when juniors Trey Bower and Logan Kusler settled in, Goff said.
“We had to talk about some things that were going on along the line and make some adjustments,” Goff said. “We did that, and that helped us make some plays. We have been one of the best offenses in the state since the season started, but we had to go out there and prove it.”
EAST 35, NATRONA 14
Casper Natrona County…… 7 0 0 7 – 14
Cheyenne East…… 6 0 22 7 – 35
NC: Wallace 8 run (Hoppens kick), 8:07.
CE: Schroeder 60 pass from Buell (Schroeder kick failed), 6:39.
CE: Micheli 32 pass from Buell (Buell run), 10:04.
CE: Aumiller 78 pass from Buell (B. Mead kick), 5:15.
CE: Rayl 9 pass from Buell (B. Mead kick), 1:56.
CE: Anderton 2 run (B. Mead kick), 3:29.
NC: Bundy 1 run (Hoppens kick), 3:14.
Casper Natrona County: Taubert 11-8, Allison 1-2, Bundy 21-99, Wallace 6-23. Cheyenne East: Anderton 17-58, Haugen 2-2, Buell 9-71.
Casper Natrona County: Taubert 14-27-3 169. Cheyenne East: Buell 14-23-1 285.
Casper Natrona County: Quig 2-43, Cox 2-13, Allison 2-46, Kelly 4-42, Overstreet 2-15, True 1-6, Wishart 1-4. Cheyenne East: Anderton 1-1, Hesford 3-11, Aumiller 3-126, Micheli 2-39, Rayl 4-48, Schroeder 1-60.